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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [17:06]
The Wasps (Overture) (1909) [9:07]
Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ (1928) [4:36]
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
The Banks of Green Willow (1913) [5:47]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op.36 (1899) [31:13]
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 26 January 1979 and No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 27-28 November 1978 (The Wasps, Enigma Variations), 30 November 1971 (Greensleeves), and 15-16 December 1976 (Green Willow).
British Composers Series
EMI CLASSICS 3 82157 2 [68:25]



André Previn was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1969 to 1979, becoming something of a household name and popularising classical music with an approachable, unpretentious, unstuffy style. His pedigree as an interpreter of British music was well established in this period, including a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies. Many collectors will know these recordings as well as they know each tick and crackle from the LP stylus from which the music has so often been conjured, and so it is welcome indeed to see these classic recordings collected under one roof.
 
The familiar LSO sound of the seventies: rich, expressive and - for the most part - impeccably disciplined, is one of the main attractions of this disc. The analogue recordings give very little away to many modern digital ones, and there is certainly no compromise in terms of detail.
 
The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis has to compete with the Sir John Barbirolli on an EMI GROC (see review), a recording with a unique intensity which is hard to beat. The edit 12 seconds in and strange cut-off at 21 seconds bodes ill with this Previn version, but after this inauspicious start the music takes over, and Previn’s ability to sustain long adagio lines without losing shape takes over. The ensemble could also be better, with one or two tremolo strings anticipating a little here and there, but in the end all of this matters little – the tear ducts are jerked soundly and consistently with the gorgeously sonorous tutti sections, and a genuinely distant piano softness caresses the ear as the dynamics plunge and rear, and the plangently timeless drama unfolds.
 
The other Vaughan Williams works come from his compositions for the stage. The Wasps is the overture for Aristophanes’ play, and is an apt demonstration piece for any orchestra. The LSO brass and winds revel in the whole romping celebration, and with only the slightly leathery tone from the oboes suggesting the antiquity of the recording this is about as good as any version one might care to name. The Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ from Vaughan Williams' second opera ‘Sir John in Love’ (1924-8) appears in its rich arrangement for strings, harp and flutes by Ralph Greaves. Previn takes on a consciously vibrato-laden string sound for the opening main theme, as if responding to the ‘wobbly flutes’ so unloved by my late lamented teacher Gareth Morris. The warmth of the sound works well however, despite transporting the innocent simplicity of the melody into more Mahlerian realms.
 
The tragedy of George Butterworth’s loss in WWI is made even more moving when you read that The Banks of Green Willow was at its premiere in 1914, the last of his own works the composer heard in public. The gentle, folksong-based music receives sensitive handling by Previn and his players, and with beautiful solos and accompaniments the overall effect is more chamber-music than symphonic.
 
With the keys of a WWII Enigma machine appearing coyly behind the ‘British Composers’ title panel on the booklet cover, it is clear where the real focus for this issue lies. Previn’s timings for almost all of the variations are strikingly similar to Elgar’s own, recorded 50 years earlier in 1926 and now available on an excellent Naxos remastering (8.111022). Typical of later tradition however, Previn couldn’t resist lingering over Nimrod, and comes in at 4:33 to Elgar’s 2:53. Sir Adrian Boult has his Nimrod at 4:37, so there is plenty of precedent, and listening to Elgar’s swooping portamento strings emphasises just how much of a difference there is between the eras. The 1962 Boult recording with the London Philharmonic on EMI Classics for Pleasure is indeed something of a classic, but Previn, a jazz musician after all, shows how much more fun and inner joy there is to be heard in variations such as R.B.T. and Elgar’s own E.D.U. There are friendly glances and smiles all over the place in Ysobel and Dorabella – the shirt very much unstuffed and the collar de-starched. Returning to the 1926 Elgar recording it is fascinating to hear how comparably affectionate inflections create a similar atmosphere to Previn – certainly without his underlying Broadway charm, but to all appearances with the shirt-sleeves rolled up and the collar stud loosened in the presence of all those close and beloved friends.
 
This is a recording to be cherished, whether as an old friend or a new discovery matters not. Previn’s characterisations in the ‘Enigma’ variations populate your room with real people – fellows eccentric and heroic, and fragrant females of charm and sophistication. One finds oneself wishing one had friends like these.
 
Dominy Clements
 

 

 

 


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